Alice looked up at what had been the exterior wall of the tower, but now looped all the way around them. The room they were in was a squat cylinder that had seemed to be about as wide as the tower was, before everything upended, and the wall had become the floor, all of a sudden. Now, they stood at the bottom of the curved exterior wall, looking around with varied degrees of confusion.
“Well,” said Red. “That happened.” He glanced down at Aidra, still out cold. “Is he okay?”
Nik crouched at his brother’s side, gently opening one of Aidra’s eyes with his thumb and looking in for a moment before speaking. “Psionic exhaustion,” he said, with a small sigh of relief. “He’ll be out for a few minutes, no more than ten.”
“Why’d it all tip on its side?” Alice asked. “Has the tower actually fallen over?”
“I don’t think so,” said Red. “We’re quite high up it – it’d have been much louder and more destructive, for one. I think we’re just getting closer towards something like… where the tower came from, or who currently controls it, or something.”
“Towards the other you?”
“I guess so. Reality is,” he paused, frowning as he composed a metaphor, “broken? Thinner here? The tower’s climbing higher, into and through layers of things it really shouldn’t.”
“And the Real-wave interfaces are causing the very stones of the tower to lose cohesion, as we saw on the stairs,” A Librarian added. “Two different realities don’t normally abut as sharply as that, though – it’s almost definitely artificial.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” said Alice.
She could almost hear the gears turning in A Librarian’s head as he switched to ‘lecturer mode’. “Okay, so, the theory is that all beings, to various extents, set up their own ‘bubble’ of reality. To some extent, everything with a mind has one, and within it, reality is theirs to shape, to a certain extent.”
“This is more noticeable with powerful beings or magicians,” Red added.
“Yeah – at least one of the competing theories of magic in general is that it’s all about increasing your ability to affect one’s local reality, by using various techniques to make it easier. Like, say, writing Words on paper, or speaking them aloud.”
“Should I be taking notes?”
A Librarian paused, frowning, for a worrying length of time before replying. “No.”
“Not reassuring. Abbreviate your explanation, please.”
He harrumphed. “Okay then. Everything has a ‘sphere of influence’, and the melty stairs were us entering a sphere of influence. My best guess as to what sphere of influence we’ve entered is that of whatever now rules this tower. The evidence I’m seeing,” he gestured around, at the puckered, warped walls, “is that this is a very powerful but sharp-edged field.”
Something occurred to Alice. “Wait, why did the stairs melt, and we didn’t?”
“Well, we’ve all got our own senses of self, which are stronger than the reality fields of the tower’s stones.”
“And the gravity thing?”
“I think that’s just reality in here reacting to the will of the tower’s master. Maybe-”
He was cut off by the sound of someone slowly clapping, the sounds echoing off the walls, sounding like they were simultaneously close and distant.
“Bravo, bravo. Very well puzzled out, we must admit.”
The voice sounded like a choir speaking, the whispers of hundreds of voices layering until they were loud enough to hear. Its tone was cold, mocking and, worst of all, she could almost hear Red’s voice in there, like an uncanny replica of her friend, twisted and wrong.
“Oh hells,” Red whispered, “I really do sound that smug, don’t I?”
“Ah. Another one of us, they crawl back to our nest, prostrate and pitiful, to beg at our feet for the transcendence we claimed.”
“You said it, not me,” Alice whispered back.
Above them, the stone of what had been a roof groaned as it parted, rippling like water as a figure rose from it, until they were floating just ‘above’ the surface, upside-down from the perspective of the tower, looking down at them.
The creature was Red, but that was where the resemblance ended. Beneath the sleeve of their long, pale robe, their left arm bulged grotesquely, jagged spikes of crystal protruding through the fabric in tumorous, red glass growths. The left hand of this not-Red was the artificial one, its long, jagged fingers – too many, she noticed, far too many – twitching, moving continually even as the rest of their body was deathly still. And deathly it was. This false Red’s lips were blue, and the eye that wasn’t overtaken with crystalline growth was bloodshot and rheumy, staring into space as their head lolled to the side. Beneath their skin, jagged red veins, livid and nearly glowing, pulsed irregularly.
“Yeesh, me,” said Red. “What’s happened to us?”
There was a creak, a grinding of stone and crystal, as the other Red raised their monstrous hand to point at him.
“We have journeyed inward, little self. We have sought answers and found them. And you come here, to claim my power? To offer sacrifices? To beg an unattainable forgiveness?”
“None of those things, you megalomaniacal bellend,” he hissed in retort. “We were sent here by the great serpent Jöurnalmungandr that wraps Herself about Foyer, apparently because you’re making too much of a nuisance of yourself to be allowed to abide this close to the city.”
The thing that might have been Red chuckled. Dark blood trickled down from the corner of its eye. “The other us, they seek to come here and offer ultimatum? Laughable. We have heard many of those, from other selves, other ‘heroes’. We gnawed on their bones all the same.”
“Ew,” said Alice, “autocannibalism? I think that’s what its called.”
The other Red turned their head very slightly, although Alice was still out of their dead eye’s field of vision. “It is the perspective of a flattened, nondimensional mind to see it that way. Your view is warped, small mind – you see it as a cannibalism, but would it be cannibalistic of you to reattach a lost limb?”
“I’m not a lost fragment of you. You’re one of mine!”
Not-Red’s face remained slack and dead, but there was a vicious smile in their chorus of voices. “They all say that.”
The other Red held out their twisted, jagged arm, nearly as long as the rest of their body, and snapped their fingers. What had been ‘floor’ and ‘ceiling’ of the upended room bowed outward as if pushed by a tremendous force, until the room was the hollow inside of a sphere. With that, the other Red reached out with their long, jagged fingers, sinking them into the wall and dragging, and the room rotated at their touch. Gravity shifted, slower this time, until they were standing beneath the false Red’s floating corpse, supported by the malignant power of their red left hand. Above them, the dome of the ‘roof’ started to open, revealing a sky Alice didn’t recognise. Around them, behind them, the pale stone stretched into a wide circular floor surrounded by a high wall, slowly building itself into a tiered amphitheatre, rows of empty seats grinding and creaking their way into existence.
All the while, a thing that looked like it had once been Red hovered, unmoving but for their left hand’s jagged fingers, which twitched and moved like a spider conducting an orchestra.
“So, other self, you came here to challenge us?”